The room where our school board meets is already packed with people and alive with tension. The space is standing-room only again. This is the second meeting in as many months that the public has been permitted to attend in person. For the past eighteen months, we’ve held meetings on Zoom and seen record numbers of attendees—another phenomenon we can describe as unprecedented.
Our first in-person meeting since the beginning of the pandemic was in July, a hopeful moment when I thought we might have been on the other side of COVID-19. Many mandates had been lifted, and unmasked people flooded the meeting room. They appeared invigorated to be attending a public meeting in person. Some thanked us with a sharp tone that sounded like sarcasm, as though we had withheld something unduly. Some people waved American flags in the parking lot for an hour prior to the start of the meeting; others carried signs about critical race theory reading, “CRT Does Not Belong in Our Schools.” Most people who testified spoke about the harms of masks for our children. One person described how their child chewed through masks. Another complained that their child could not breathe while wearing a mask. The meeting was intense, but we made it through. This would not be the case for the August meeting.
There is nothing on our planned agenda for this meeting about masks or teaching about racism. We are slated to discuss routine business, such as the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS), a complex and ongoing matter that has a significant impact on our budget. We will also receive a report from one of our administrators about our English language learners, data that is mandated for the board to receive on a regular basis.
In our public schools, we do a lot of things that are mandated, such as providing nutrition and transportation and accommodating students with special education needs. It is now also mandated that our teachers, staff, and students wear masks. The Governor reenacted the mask mandate due to an ongoing surge of hospitalizations and deaths.
Tonight, half of the people in attendance are wearing masks, and half are not. None of the board members are surprised by this or by the size of the crowd. We have been reading about Oregon school board meetings that have been conducted with audience members yelling; these meetings have been adjourned repeatedly to make it through the public comment portion. The week before our meeting, board members in one Oregon district had to be escorted to their cars because they felt so threatened by the individuals who had gathered and shouted throughout their meeting. The Salem-Keizer School Board preemptively canceled their August meeting because, as they explained in a public statement, “[w]e are seeing a continual call in our community to create disruption to our board and our school with divisiveness that has no place in the lives of our students.”
The week before our meeting, some fellow board members and administrators asked me whether we ought to move it online: “Shall we Zoom this meeting?” (Zoom is now a verb, an adjective, and a noun.)
I decided not to. As chair of my local school board, I want to make decisions that reflect what I want our schools to look like. I don’t want to preemptively retreat into a virtual world. I want to be courageous on behalf of our students. I want to have faith in my community that we will be civil, that we will honor our shared humanity through dignity and connection to a common purpose.
I sense tension in the room before I even enter. The part of my brain that assesses my safety is telling me to be afraid. I override my instinct and walk into the room as open-heartedly as I can. It is up to me to run this meeting in a time of high passions and extreme distrust of public officials. I want to use some of my facilitator tools. I want us to start the meeting by going around the room and saying our names, one word for how we are feeling, and one thing we hope to get out of the meeting. I want us to pause and take a moment to look around the room and really see one another. But that sort of thing isn’t covered in Robert’s Rules.
As I take my seat at the bench, I do my best to make eye contact with people in the crowd. I see a longtime acquaintance, a mom whose child attended primary school with my children. The last time we saw each other was in winter, in the parking lot of the credit union to which we both belong. Then, we hugged and chatted about how remote schooling was affecting our adolescent children. Now she is sitting in the front row of the audience and she is not wearing a mask. I say hello, using her first name.
I call the meeting into session and tell the audience that I am glad to be gathered in person and, in order to remain in person, folks will need to wear masks. Immediately some begin to boo. One woman, who is not wearing a mask, leaps to her feet, shouting and pointing. I repeat that we are under an order to wear masks inside buildings. I mistakenly call the order a “law,” and some people shout that it’s a “mandate, not a law.” A bit embarrassed, I correct myself and once again ask that folks put on masks. My acquaintance in the front row puts hers on. I thank her, using her first name again. The yelling woman continues to yell. I say that I will not hold a meeting where there is yelling and where folks will not wear masks. I tap the gavel twice and adjourn the meeting, stating that we would reconvene virtually.
Loud groaning ensues. Several people rush the bench. Some are submitting written testimony that they had planned to deliver and expressing their disappointment at losing the opportunity to orally deliver the statements. The woman who had leapt to her feet in the audience is standing directly in front of me, shouting, “You are a coward.” I look her in the eye, trying to discern my level of safety with this person. Something in me says to not engage.
A part of me wants to stand amid the groaning and shouting and open my arms wide. I want to show my vulnerability. I want to tell them that I am scared also. I want to remind them that I am a parent to three children who are also experiencing education during the pandemic. I want to tell them that COVID-19 negatively affected my business and that, as a single mom, my economic fear skyrocketed. I want to embrace the woman who is screaming at me that I am a coward and tell her that I am just as afraid as she is, and that we are safe. I don’t do any of this. I maintain composure and gather papers.
When I arrive at my home, I remove my shoes and stand barefoot on the cool earth. I stretch my arms out to the sky and take a deep breath. I choke a bit. I give myself two minutes, then I head to my office and turn on my laptop. I set up a lamp to light my face because I know we will be on this Zoom meeting until well after dark.
The morning after the disrupted meeting, I wake up and scroll through my social media feed. I see an image of a freight plane packed with humans who are fleeing Afghanistan. They leave behind their homes, their loved ones, their customs, their homeland. I hear about a video that shows humans falling from the wings of a plane as it departs the tarmac. I wonder if the refugees would be willing to wear masks as they sit crammed onto a plane, with no seats, no beverage service, no electronic devices, no leg room, no certainty about their future.
Later that day, while driving my teenage son and his friend to basketball practice, I notice a billboard along the freeway. The ad claims that their business is “Going Beyond.” I think about all the ways we have been going beyond normal requirements over the past eighteen months. Our school administrators, our teachers, our parents, our public health officials, our legislators, our business administrators, our health-care providers, our grocery clerks, our delivery drivers; we have all gone beyond. So many of us have taken on more work, more complexity, more uncertainty. Maybe this is why so many seem stretched thin, to a snapping point. Maybe we have gone beyond what the human psyche can contain.
The night after the board meeting, I still feel wrung out. My brain isn’t working at full capacity. The level of stress is too much for my nervous system to process efficiently. I think of my friend who moved away from Portland in early 2020 and onto acreage in the Columbia River Gorge. She and her spouse have been homesteading in an off-the-grid home outside of White Salmon. A few months ago, we met at Skamania Lodge to develop a business strategy for an online community we are building for veterinary professionals. As we sat across from one another during lunch, I looked into her eyes. I could see that she had shifted in some way.
“What’s going on with you? Your eyes look different,” I said.
“They do? In what way?”
“They look far away, like you are not of this earth. Has living off grid and away from the grind changed you?”
“It has,” she said. “I can feel it. I just don’t have a tolerance for anything performative anymore. I want authenticity. I can’t do the other stuff.”
I want authenticity also, but I fear it. What would it look like for me to chair a school board meeting while also expressing how much fear runs through my body? How could I go beyond the constraints of Robert’s Rules and boardroom formality in a way that could bring us together?
I imagine myself saying, “I want to be fully present for you all this evening, but I am noticing that I am experiencing a fight-or-flight response in my body. I wonder if we could all go around the room and commit to creating a safe space before we start the official meeting.”
Or, “I know we are all upset about how things are going. It can be helpful in times like this to mindfully practice gratitude. Let’s all take a moment to write down three to five things for which we are grateful and then pair up with someone in the room who we don’t know and share our list.”
Or maybe I could open the meeting with a meditation. We could all sit in silence and listen to our breath for two minutes, then speak aloud the name of one ancestor who taught us courage and resilience.
Could that authenticity, that attempt to connect on a human level and move beyond our disruption and into a deep presence, be the remedy we need? If I am to be the leader I long to be, I must stretch beyond the status quo. Performing our opinions in ways that feel threatening to others, asserting righteousness, maintaining professional distance that creates an abyss—these behaviors will be the downfall of my spirit and my community.
I cannot live in fear and resistance and also carry us toward a renewed sense of purpose. We must be close to our purpose, aware of our connectedness, and courageous enough to keep showing up even though it is scary. This is the only remedy we have to move beyond the disruption.
1 comments have been posted.
Thank you! As a retired Oregon educator, I applaud your willingness to write and post your message. Needless to say, that is not what is occurring with my school board.
Kate Kelleher | October 2021 | Newberg